September 15 to October 15 brings the celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States, a time that honors the cultures of American citizens whose ancestors came from Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Spain.
A big part of the cultural heritage that many Latinx people share in this country is food. The passing of recipes from generations who had to immigrate and migrate to the United States has kept many close to their home countries. A bite of creamy flan can take you back to your aunt’s house and having a savory pupusa filled with cheese can transport you to your grandparents’ home. These recipes, recreated in homes and restaurants across the United States, give many a taste of their roots.
Latin America, a massive region covering South, Central, and North America and parts of the Caribbean, is rich in culture and history when it comes to food. Before colonization by the Europeans, indigenous populations such as the Inca, Maya, Aztec, and Taínos possessed centuries of culinary and farming traditions. For example, although commonly associated with European cuisine, the potato was first cultivated in Peru thousands of years ago.
In the past 500 years since the colonization of Latin America, the gastronomy has evolved due to international influences. When the Spaniards brought African slaves to the Americas, the slaves also brought their foods and recipes to the new world. For example, plantains, a staple of many Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican dishes, come from the African heritage. Arroz chaufa (fried rice) of Peru originates from the Chinese immigrants who settled there, and Argentina’s popular dishes such as la Milanesa find their origins in Italy.
The migration of Latin American cuisine continues in the United States as immigrants reinvented their favorite family dishes, especially those who live in areas with little access to their native ingredients. This can be reflected in many menus across the country.
To mark National Hispanic Heritage Month and all it encompasses, below find a breakdown of celebrating cultures and their cuisines, popular dishes, and where to find them.
Click on the below country names to jump directly to that section.
Popular dishes: Parrillada, empanadas, fugazza, milanesa, choripan, alfajores, locro
Background: One of Latin America’s biggest agricultural producers, Argentina is home to various produce and meats. The origins of many of the traditional dishes come from Spanish and indigenous influences. However, Italian immigrants of the mid 19th century have also influenced Argentinian food.
Known for the high quality of its cattle, grilled meats dominate the Argentinian table. A parrillada is a plate filled with grilled beef and sausages. Baked empanadas are also a big part of the Argentinian menu, typically snacks made of wheat flour dough filled with savory meat and baked. Locro, one of Argentina’s national dishes, is a hearty corn-and-potato-based stew that has been part of the region before the Europeans arrived.
Then there’s Argentinian pizza, commonly found in Buenos Aires, such as fugazzeta, a popular variety made with a thick crust and topped with cheese, onions, and sometimes olives. For those with a sweet tooth, treat yourself to a cold gelato or heavenly alfajores — cornstarch-based cookies filled with sweet dulce de leche.
Popular dishes: Salteñas, sopa de maní, parrillada, silpancho, pique macho, plato paceño, picaña navideña
Background: Nestled between the Andes and the Amazon, Bolivia is a biodiverse country with a very present indigenous culture that significantly influences its cuisine. Andean Indigenous, Spanish, and Arab ingredients are prevalent in Bolivian gastronomy.
Salteñas, the Bolivian version of an empanada, is made with flour and filled with a rich, spicy stew of beef, chicken, or vegetables. The contrast of the thick, sweet dough and the spicy stew makes for a joyful eating experience.
Silipancho is another favorite of Bolivian cuisine. The cut of beef pounded until thin and breaded is then topped with an egg and served with rice and fries. The dish may sound simple, but it is flavorful and filling.
Popular dishes: Pastel de choclo, ajiaco, anticuchos, asados, calapurca, la carbonada, cazuela, chapalele, charquicán, curanto, empanadas
Background: Like the rest of its South American neighbors, Chile’s popular foods are a mix of the many cultures in the country. The typical “criollo” food comes from the merging of Indigenous ingredients (corn and potatoes) with elements introduced during the colonization by the Spaniards, such as wheat and beef. During the 19th and the 20th centuries, Chile also experienced immigration from Europe, mainly from Italy and Germany, which also influenced its gastronomy.
Pastel de choclo (corn cake) is a popular savory Chilean dish. “Choclo,” meaning corn in Quechua’s native language, is a native variety of corn that is less sweet than corn in the United States. The dish is a casserole with layers of a cooked savory-sweet mix of ground beef, onions, and raisins topped with ground corn mixed with milk, cheese, and basil. Another variation is the pastel de papa, which is similar to a shepherd’s pie.
Empanadas are another big part of the country’s cuisine. Chilean empanadas are made with a wheat flour dough and filled with either ground beef, seafood, or cheese. Asados are also common on a Chilean menu. Meats such as chicken, lamb, and beef are roasted on the grill. You can also find sausages like chorizo and grilled corn on the cob.
Popular dishes: Arepas, bandeja paisa, empanadas, arroz con coco, ajiaco, sancocho antioqueño
Background: From Cartagena’s coastal cities to the mountains of Medellín, Colombian cuisine offers a broad spectrum of choices throughout the country. There’s lush jungle access, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, meaning a dish for everyone.
The bandeja paisa, a classic dish of the Antioquia department (what Colombia calls its states and where Medellín is the capital), is probably one of the most decadent plates of Colombian gastronomy. Bandeja means tray in English, so this dish — served on a large, tray-like plate with copious amounts of rice, beans, grilled meats, chicharrón, arepas, avocado, and topped with an egg — is often shared with a group.
The colder climate of Bogotá lends itself to a comforting soup like ajiaco. Ajiaco is usually made with shredded chicken, hearty chunks of potatoes, corn on the cob, and topped with cream and capers. In Cartagena de Indias’s warmer coastal climate, you can find arroz con coco, a delectable rice and coconut dish, mojarra frita (fried tilapia) and patacones (fried plantains).
Popular dishes: Gallo pinto, casado, chifrijo, arroz con coco, empanadas, guiso criollo, rondón con leche de coco, tamal asado, pollo relleno
Background: Costa Rica, located in Central America, is rich in biodiversity with access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, rainforests, and volcanic regions. Its fertile land produces countless fruits and vegetables such as cacao, tubers, beans, bananas, and pineapple. The abundance of agricultural products plus the country’s mixed cultural heritage provides a variety of dishes.
Gallo pinto is one of the national dishes of Costa Rica. Made with rice and beans, it is said to have deep Afro-Caribbean roots. This beloved plate is usually served at breakfast with fried eggs, tortillas, avocado, and fried plantains. You must have your gallo pinto with a cup of Costa Rica’s one of its top exports, coffee.
Casado is a famous lunch dish in Costa Rica. “Casado” means married in Spanish, and the dish does just that. Different foods such as rice, beans, fried plantains, meats or fish (depending on the region), and a small salad are “married” in a platter. Then there’s chifrijo. Although the chifrijo has only been around for less than 30 years, it has become a hot item in Costa Rica. This filling bowl comes with layers of beans, chicharrón, rice, pico de gallo, and avocados.
Popular dishes: Ropa vieja, arroz congri, lechón asado, rabo encendido, yuca con mojo, tostones, picadillo, gaceñiga, flan de platano maduros
Background: Cuban culture is a mix of mainly Spanish, Taíno, and African culture. As the largest island in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the country has a large selection of indigenous fruits and vegetables such as yucca, guava, peppers, and corn. The Spanish and Africans also added fruits and vegetables such as plantains and sugar cane, creating a colorfully varied selection of dishes.
One of the most recognized Cuban dishes is ropa vieja, which translates to “old clothes” in Spanish, used to describe the look of the shredded beef. The beef is slow-cooked with onions, garlic, oregano, and other spices and served with white rice and tostones (fried green plantains).
Another well-known Cuban dish is rabo encendido, which translates to “tail on fire.” This spicy oxtail soup is a fixture at most Cuban homes and restaurants. Cuban rice and beans, or congrí, is also a beloved Cuban dish.
Popular dishes: Mangú, mofongo, quipe, mondongo, sancocho, longaniza, chicharrón, arroz con gandules, moro de habichuelas, queso frito
Background: The Dominican Republic’s culinary roots come from Europe, Africa, the Taíno people, and, to a smaller degree, other settlers such as the Lebanese. Plantain is one of the most recognized agricultural products in the Dominican Republic, used in many national dishes.
Mangú, a delicious puree made of boiled green plantains, is one of the best-known Dominican dishes across Latin America. Commonly served with fried salami, eggs, and queso frito (fried cheese), mangu is a staple in many Dominican households.
Quipe, a famous Dominican snack, finds its origins from the Lebanonese beef-and-bulgur croquettes known as kibbeh. The Dominican version uses beef seasoned with a Caribbean flair. Soups and stews are also part of the Dominican cuisine, with many recipes hailing from the countryside. One to try is sancocho, a hearty stew typically made with beef and a collection of Caribbean vegetables such as taro root, pumpkin, yuca, and yams.
Popular dishes: Locro de papa, cuy asado, llapingachos, churrasco, mote pillo, ceviche, bolónes de verde, encebollado
Background: Located on the equator, Ecuador’s subtropical climate and long coastline make for an exciting menu. Not only do Spanish, Inca, and African cultures influence Ecuadorian food, but its neighboring countries, Peru and Colombia, have a role to play as well.
The coastal region of Ecuador is known for its fish dishes, one of the most famous being shrimp ceviche. Compared to Peruvian ceviche, Ecuadorian ceviche is made with cooked shrimp and served with a tangy dressing made with tomato sauce, lime juice, orange juice, and red onions,
Going inland, you will find llapingachos, or potato patties filled with a variety of ingredients such as chorizo, pico de gallo, cheese, fried eggs, and avocado. Llapingachos are a staple of the Andean region of Ecuador. Cuy, or roasted guinea pig, is also a very common regional dish.
Popular dishes: Pupusas, tamales, enchiladas, yuca frita, sopa de gallina, quesadillas, sopa de pata, gallo en chicha, peperechas de pan dulce
Background: El Salvador is a small country surrounded by Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. The dishes from El Salvador are a fusion between Spanish and Indigenous cultures.
One of the most common ingredients in Salvadoran cuisine is corn. Pupusas are one of the most notable corn dishes of El Salvador, made of tasty, thick corn tortillas served with various fillings: cheese, chicharrón, shredded pork, beans, and more. They’re usually served with curtido, a salad made with cabbage, onions, carrots, and vinegar. Pupuserias are quite popular in the Los Angeles and Washington D.C. metro areas, where there are large populations of El Salvadoran immigrants.
Just like other Latin American cuisines, soups are also an essential part of El Salvadoran menus. Sopa de pata (foot soup) is one of the most popular soups in El Salvador. The rich flavor of this soup comes from cow’s feet and is usually made in large quantities as it is a fixture in family gatherings.
Restaurants to try: La Casita Pupuseria & Cocina C.A. in Gaithersburg, Maryland
Popular dishes: Pepián de pollo, dobladas, tamales, piloyada, enchiladas guatemaltecas, garnachas, caldo de moronga, plátanos en mole
Background: Like its neighboring Central American countries, Guatemalan cuisine is mostly a mix of Spanish and Indigenous cultures. The cuisine also has African roots from the Garifuna people, who live in the coastal areas of Guatemala. The country is rich in different habitats, responsible for a variety of cuisines and ingredients. Rooted in its Indigenous culture, corn is the most commonly used ingredient in Guatemalan food.
Dobladas guatemaltecas are a savory snack or starter made with cornmeal filled with cheese or meats such as shredded chicken or beef. The dobladas are commonly topped with tomato sauce and crumbled queso fresco. Tamales are also popular in Guatemalan cuisine. Compared to the Mexican variety, these are slightly larger and wrapped with banana leaf.
One of the national dishes of Guatemala is the pepián. This historic stew was served during Mayan religious ceremonies and has been a staple of Guatemalan cuisine for centuries. Pepián is made with meat, usually chicken, pork, or beef and cooked with chiles, carrots, potatoes, and served with rice.
Restaurants to try: La Bamba in Silver Spring, MD, Guatemala Restaurant in Houston, TX, Café Guatemalteco in San Francisco
Popular dishes: Baleadas, carne asada, tamales de elote, chanfaina, casamiento, pupusas, sopa de caracol, sopas de cangrejo, sopa de gallina india
Background: Honduras, located in Central America, also has a culinary history centered in the fusion of Spanish, Indigenous, and African cultures. With a large coast along the Caribbean Sea, there are many seafood-based dishes. And like its neighbors, corn is a key ingredient of many Honduran dishes.
One of the best-known Honduran dishes is the baleada. Baleadas are large corn tortillas, commonly filled with refried beans, sour cream, cheese, and avocado. There are other varieties with meat fillings as well. Another popular street food is pupusas. Just as in El Salvador, Hondurans make pupusas filled with either cheese, loroco (an edible flower native to Central America), beans, or meat.
Sopa de caracol (conch soup) is also a well-known Honduran dish, becoming even more popular in the 1990s when a song named after it became famous in Latin America. This flavorful soup is made with fresh conch meat, coconut milk, yucca, carrots, and onions. This dish comes from the Garifuna, an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group living in the coastal towns of Honduras.
Popular dishes: Tacos, moles, pozole, menudo, chilaquiles, chile en nogada, quesadillas, enchiladas, tlayudas, tamales
Background: Many of the better known Latin American dishes in the United States come from Mexico. Mexican cuisine has a deep, long history, with many of its foods finding their origins from thousands of years ago. Many fruits and vegetables such as cocoa, corn (Mexico has 59 varieties), avocado, and squashes are indigenous to Mexico.
With over 125 million inhabitants and 32 states, Mexico’s geography also lends to its food diversity. Tacos, perhaps one of the most popular dishes, can be found throughout the country. However, there are regional classics that have also become prominent on many menus. The Oaxacan mole, a complex, creamy sauce made of bitter chocolate, a variety of chilies, vegetables, and spices, is usually served with chicken and rice. Menudo, a rich soup with tripe and guajillo chiles hailing from Jalisco, is known for curing hangovers. Acapulco’s coastal region is famous for its colorful ceviches made with fish, citrus, and chiles.
From comforting tamales to homemade tortillas, there is plenty to explore when it comes to Mexican food. It is no surprise why UNESCO designated traditional Mexican food as a world cultural treasure worth preserving.
Popular dishes: Gallo pinto, surtido típico, pescado a la tipitapa, tamales, yoltamales, caballo bayo, indio viejo, rondón, pan de coco, sopa de mondongo
Background: Similar to its Central American neighbors, Nicaragua’s culinary traditions come from both Indigenous and Spanish cultures. Corn, beans, and rice are commonly found in Nicaraguan dishes. With its lakes, volcanoes, and access to both the Atlantic and Pacific, Nicaraguan cuisine is quite diverse.
The nacatamal is a tamal unique to Nicaragua. Made with cornmeal and filled with stewed pork, it’s then wrapped in a banana leaf. Making a nacatamal is quite labor-intensive and can take a few days, so you can only find them at restaurants during the weekends. Locals know not to order them during the week!
Pescado a la tipitapa is another well-known dish in Nicaragua, especially in the coastal areas, consisting of fried red snapper topped with a bright sauce of peppers and tomatoes. Indio viejo is a thick, meat-based stew thickened with cornmeal that’s very popular throughout the different regions of Nicaragua.
Popular dishes: Arroz con guandú y coco, sancocho, patacones, ceviche, arroz fututiao, mondongo, guacho panameño
Background: Panamá bridges Central and South America together. With its geographical location and the Panama Canal, it is a country with many culinary influences. Like many other countries, Panamanian food has Spanish, Indigenous, and African roots but also American and Chinese influences. Rice and corn are the base of many of the dishes.
Sancocho panameños is considered one of the national dishes of Panamá. This robust stew has been part of Panamá since the arrival of the Spaniards and is typically made with chicken and chunky vegetables. Most also include ñame, a starchy root vegetable, but the style of sancocho can vary throughout the different regions of the country.
Shrimp ceviche is the most popular type of ceviche in Panamá. Shrimps are marinated in lime juice and vinegar with clams and seabass to make a fresh starter. Rice with pigeon peas and coconut, or arroz con guandú y coco, is also a beloved Panamanian dish bringing the sweetness of the coconut together with the savory pigeon peas.
Popular dishes: Chipa guazú, sopa paraguaya, mbeyú, humita, vorí vorí, caldo avá, chororqui, yopará, pira caldo
Background: Paraguay is a relatively small country compared to its South American neighbors, Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. Paraguayan culinary roots are primarily centered in Guaraní (Paraguay’s main Indigenous group) and Spanish culture. Other influences from neighboring countries and Italian and German immigrants have also influenced its cuisine.
One of the national dishes, chipa guazú, means “big bread” in the Guaraní language. The dish’s base is choclo (thick kernel corn) with eggs, milk, and queso Paraguay, and it’s traditionally baked in clay wood-fired ovens in the rural areas of the country. Sopa paraguaya is similar to chipa guazú, though it’s made with cornmeal for a cornbread-like texture.
Vorí vorí is also a notable Paraguayan dish. The hearty soup, most often eaten during the winter, is made with homemade chicken broth, chunks of chicken, and little cornmeal balls.
Restaurants to try: I Love Paraguay in Queens, NY
Popular dishes: Ceviche, causa rellena, lomo saltado, arroz chaufa, papa a la huancaína, ají de gallina, tiraditos, seco de pescado, pollo a la brasa
Background: With one of the most diverse ecosystems in South America, Peru is rife with deserts, mountains, rainforests, and access to the sea. The environment, compounded by the fusion of European, African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures, makes Peruvian cuisine one of the most diverse in the Americas. Peru grows over 50 varieties of corn and over 1,500 native varieties of potatoes, which take center stage in many of its dishes.
One of the best known Peruvian delicacies is ceviche, a colorful dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice, seasoned with spicy chiles, and served with choclo (thick kernels of Peruvian corn). Another dish you can find on most Peruvian restaurant menus is causa rellena. Made with mashed yellow potatoes seasoned with lime and aji amarillo (yellow chile), causa is stuffed with a variety of fillings such as shrimp, tuna salad, avocados, or chicken.
For meat lovers, try the lomo saltado. The beef stir fry dish with rice and potatoes has roots in Peru’s Chinese immigrants. Arroz chaufa, fried rice Peruvian style, also comes from Peru’s Chinese heritage. Peruvian-Japanese cuisine, also known as Nikkei, is also well known throughout the culinary world. Tiraditos are a dish similar to ceviche, but made with Japanese ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil.
Popular dishes: Arroz con gandules, lechón asado, alcapurrias, bacalaitos, empanadillas, tostones, mofongo, chuletas, arroz con salchichas, morcillas, bacalaítos
Background: Puerto Rican cuisine is a mix of Spanish, African, and Indigenous ingredients. As a colony of the United States since 1898, Puerto Rico also has many North American influences in its cuisine.
Fried foods are prevalent in Puerto Rican menus. From the variety of fried foods, mofongo is one of the most prominent. Made of fried green plantains, the mofongo is molded in a pilón with garlic, chicharrón (pork rinds) into a “cup” and most commonly topped with fried pork, shrimp, or lobster. It is also served plain as a side dish.
Rice is a big part of Puerto Rican cuisine. The most traditional dish is arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). The rice is usually served during the holidays and for special occasions. It is commonly the side dish to the lechón asado (roasted pork), one of the island’s most recognized dishes.
Popular dishes: Parrillada (grilled meats), chivito, ñoquis, choripán, pancho, milanesa, empanadas. tortas fritas, la pascualina
Background: Nestled between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a small country whose culinary roots come from its Italian, Spanish, and Indigenous heritage. Just as its neighbors, Uruguay has a strong barbecue meat culture, with parrilladas being one of the most popular menu items.
It is the Uruguayan tradition to eat ñoquis (gnocchi) on the 29th of each month. The family gets together to eat these small Italian-style potato dumplings, usually in a tomato sauce. Another popular dish with deep Italian roots is the fainá. Originating from Genova, fainá is a flatbread traditionally made of chickpea flour.
La pascualina, a pie filled with spinach, cheese, and hard-boiled egg, is another Uruguayan dish. It is considered a vegetarian alternative to the many meat-centered dishes in Uruguayan cuisine.
Popular dishes: Arepas, pabellón criollo, hallaca, sancocho, carne a la parrilla, asado negro, mondongo, cachapa y el pollo en brasas
Background: Venezuela is another South American country with a diverse ecosystem. The Caribbean Sea, mountains, and Amazon jungle set the stage for varied culinary offerings. The fusion of cultures, mostly Native, Spanish, Italian, French, and African, makes Venezuelan food so colorful. The subtropical climate allows for tubers such as yuca and taro, plantains, passion fruit, and papaya to grow abundantly.
One of the best-known Venezuelan dishes outside the country is the arepa. Arepas are cornmeal “pockets” that come with a variety of fillings. You can order arepas filled with eggs and cheese for breakfast or heavier ones for lunch filled with savory, shredded pork, black beans, and plantains. Although arepas can be considered street food, many restaurants have made haute cuisine adaptations for fine dining.
The pabelló criollo is the Venezuelan national dish. This hearty dish has it all: fragrant shredded beef, white rice, sweet ripe plantains, and black beans topped with cheese. During the holiday season, Venezuelans make hallacas, a tamal made with cornmeal and filled with stewed meat and wrapped in a banana leaf. It is common in Venezuela to bring the whole family together to make hallacas.